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The Coming Age of Demagogues
Peter Meilaender

One of the most surprising political phenomena of the past several months—I write this in the opening days of 2016—is Donald Trump’s persistence as the front-runner, by a large margin, for the Republican presidential nomination. Clearly, few prominent Republicans are comfortable with him as their standard-bearer (a powerful indication, incidentally, of the striking weakness of political parties today). And as a potential presidential candidate, Trump possesses numerous weaknesses: a demonstrated lack of past commitment to any particular political principles (conservative or otherwise), an utter lack of political experience and apparent indifference to learning anything about public policy, shameless and ceaseless self-promotion, bombastic rhetoric, and a boorish and grating personality.

Trump seems, indeed, to be little more than a demagogue. In his book Presidential Selection (1979), James Ceaser argues that avoiding demagogues was a chief goal of the system that the American Founders created for electing a president. Ceaser himself prefers to reserve the word “demagogue,” given its strongly negative connotations, for especially egregious examples, so he typically speaks instead of a desire on the part of the Founders to avoid “popular leadership.” He identifies two characteristic forms of popular leadership, both of which offer remarkably apt descriptions of Donald Trump. The first form involves “the use of appeals that [play] up the personal characteristics of contenders in such a way as to stimulate a fascination with dangerous or irrelevant aspects of character, methods which today we might call ‘image-building.’” This could almost have been written as a comment about Trump, much of whose appeal rests on “irrelevant aspects of character,” and about his campaign’s constant repetition of the notion that he “wins.”

The second, and more dangerous, form of popular leadership is perhaps closer to what we usually mean by “demagoguery,” and Ceaser labels it “issue arousal.” This strategy “refers to the effort of an aspiring leader to win power by putting himself at the head of a broad movement based on some deeply felt issue or cause which he may have played a role in creating or arousing.” This portrait nicely captures Trump’s use of two issues in particular, immigration and terrorism. One thinks especially of his repeated promises to “build a wall” and of his call, in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, to ban all Muslims from entering the country. Both of these reflect an effort to position himself at the head of “some deeply felt issue or cause.” And although Trump certainly did not himself create or arouse anger over illegal immigration, he was responsible for making a ban on Muslim entrants a part of mainstream political controversy.

Pundits have spilled plenty of ink trying to explain Trump’s staying power, and they point to many of the same factors: not only anxiety over illegal immigration and Islamist terrorism, but also the stagnant economy, distrust of politicians and the Washington “establishment,” a general sense that the political system is not serving the needs of ordinary middle- and working-class Americans, and Trump’s complete disregard for the demands of political correctness. (I will admit the personal appeal of this last factor.) But one editorial caught my eye for its evocation of deeper structural factors underlying Trump’s appeal. Roger Cohen wrote a column for the New York Times entitled “Trump’s Weimar America” (December 14, 2015). His title, obviously, suggested a parallel between the conditions of Germany between the World Wars and those in America and other Western democracies today. Cohen’s second paragraph nicely highlighted these: “Welcome to an angry nation stung by two lost wars, its politics veering to the extremes, its mood vengeful, beset by decades of stagnant real wages for most people, tempted by a strongman who would keep all Muslims out and vows to restore American greatness.”

Cohen’s piece is no doubt somewhat melodramatic and overheated. Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler; his bombast arises from personal narcissism rather than hatred of groups such as Muslims or Jews. Nor is he promoting fascism; indeed, whatever he is promoting remains far too vague to merit any particular ideological label. What Cohen captures, however, is less something about Trump than about his audience, voters who feel themselves, along with their country, increasingly unable to succeed in a hostile world and who do not regard most politicians as understanding their problems or speaking to their needs. These voters may well be mistaken about the political system’s attentiveness to their problems; indeed, I think that in significant respects they are. This does not mean, however, that their concerns should be lightly dismissed. As Michael Walzer has written, in “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” one of the finest political essays I know:

[T]he best critics in a liberal society are men-out-of-office. In a radically democratic society they would be men who stay away from meetings, perhaps for months at a time, and only then discover that something outrageous has been perpetrated that must be mocked or protested. The proper response to such protests is not to tell the laggard citizens that they should have been active these past many months, not to nag them to do work that they do not enjoy and in any case will not do well, but to listen to what they have to say. (1970, 229–38)

Even if we are not moved by Walzer’s appeal to our basic concern for our fellow citizens, mere self-interest also counsels that we listen to what Trump voters have to say. For as is suggested both by Ceaser’s description of popular leadership and Cohen’s conjuring of a Weimar America, large numbers of voters who feel alienated and unrepresented offer fertile soil for demagogic appeals. And the next would-be demagogue might well be more dangerous than Trump, whose large ego and self-promotion may make him a mere buffoon rather than a genuine scoundrel.

Especially worrisome, however, is the possibility that we could be witnessing the creation of a large class of voters likely to be routinely susceptible to demagogic appeals like Trump’s. This is the frightening scenario sketched (though not with political campaigns in mind) by two important recent books on socio-economic inequality in the United States: Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012) and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015). Both Murray and Putnam, from different points along the political spectrum, argue that a number of factors are combining to produce a new class divide in American society, in which—to oversimplify slightly—those with at least a college degree are increasingly successful while those with at most a high school diploma fall further and further behind. “Success” here includes not simply finding meaningful work and earning an income sufficient to support a family, but also other behaviors and affiliations associated with living happy and meaningful lives: marrying and staying married, raising children, avoiding harmful activities such as crime and drug use, being active in one’s neighborhood, participating in a religious community. On all of these counts, the well-educated and relatively affluent continue to do well, while the lower-middle and working classes experience unemployment, family breakdown, increased criminality and incarceration, social isolation, and a decline in religious affiliation. To make matters worse, the two classes are increasingly segregated from each other, living not in mixed neighborhoods but in separate enclaves, so that the well-to-do truly do not know how the other half lives, while the unsuccessful lack resources and connections to turn their lives around.

Murray and Putnam point to various factors that have helped cause this new form of increasing class inequality. Among them is a kind of virtuous cycle of success that is also, from the perspective of interaction across class divides, a vicious cycle: in an economy that increasingly rewards intelligence and talent, elite colleges and universities have become skilled at discovering and attracting the brightest young men and women, who then meet, marry, and have bright children who repeat the cycle, spending their entire lives in affluent communities, with good schools, among people more or less like themselves, in a world spared the social dysfunctions typical of poorer neighborhoods and, unlike those neighborhoods, possessing broad resources to assist any kids who do struggle along the way. While neither Murray nor Putnam is optimistic about our overcoming this emergent class divide, Putnam offers a range of so-called “purple” policy proposals—purple because some are more conservative, others more liberal—that he thinks might mitigate the problem, whereas Murray thinks that only a cultural great awakening, in which the new upper class consciously decides to desegregate and engage itself in the lives of the new lower class, could turn things around.

Even if Putnam is correct that we have policy tools that could address growing class inequality, a new lower class is by now firmly in place, and even on an optimistic assessment we will be dealing with its problems for at least one and probably two generations. Members of this class, constituting perhaps as much as a third of the population, will by and large experience economic, social, and familial failure, even as many of their fellow citizens enjoy continued success. One can hardly be surprised if they are drawn to political candidates who do not belong to the Washington establishment, who propose radical and forceful measures instead of business as usual, and who promise that, under their reign, America and Americans will “win again.” In other words, we should expect, for at least the next generation and perhaps longer, to see a series of candidates imitating the Trump formula. We are in for a coming age of demagogues.

The reasons for this, in fact, lie even deeper than the new forms of class inequality that Murray and Putnam so powerfully describe. At stake is also one of liberal democracy’s historic strengths: its ability to navigate the dynamism of market capitalism. The great virtue of free markets is their tremendous creativity, but this economic advantage can also be a social weakness. For as Schumpeter captured so nicely with his concept of “creative destruction,” the dynamism of capitalist markets, which generates their remarkable productivity, also creates social dislocation and turmoil. Every economic advance, every new technological breakthrough, every more efficient form of management or organization threatens those whose livelihoods are associated with suddenly obsolete alternatives. Economic gains for all are purchased at the expense of losses to specific groups and persons. The more dynamic the economy, therefore, the more associated losses it will bring in its wake. And if these become extensive enough, then many citizens, despite the overall economic gains that may accrue to society—the overall maximization of utility, as it were—will become nervous and uncertain, fearing that perhaps they could be the next ones suddenly to find themselves displaced and dispensable. In the past decade, this fear has begun reaching even into the professional class, affecting groups such as professors and lawyers.

No amount of preaching the virtues of free markets—even if the sermons are correct, and even if they are persuasively offered—will suffice to overcome this anxiety if it becomes sufficiently widespread. Although some people may enjoy the excitement of capitalist derring-do, many, perhaps most, citizens are not the heroically entrepreneurial risk-takers of capitalist mythology. They are grateful for the benefits of the market but not eager to sacrifice the stability of a secure livelihood. C. S. Lewis nicely captures these two sides of human nature, the competing loves for change and for stability, in one of his Screwtape Letters. There he writes—or, rather, Screwtape writes—that because human beings live in time, “they must experience change.”  Therefore God “(being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them.” But change alone will not satisfy us. And “since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm.”

Lewis is not here making a political point; his examples of “Rhythm” are the changing of the seasons and the liturgical year. But his point about our attraction to both change and permanence is relevant in this context. One of the historic tasks of liberal democracy has been to preserve a balance between the dynamism of the market and an open economic system, on the one hand, and the stability and security that humans require to order and plan their lives meaningfully, on the other. One sees this tension running beneath the political and economic struggles in nineteenth-century Europe; partially concealed from view by two world wars (though obvious during the intervening Depression), it re-emerged later in the twentieth century and has become especially evident since the Cold War’s end left the world with no economic competitors to market capitalism.

The result has been an extraordinarily dynamic global economy, with real net gains in utility that have lifted millions in the developing world out of poverty. But for citizens of Western democracies like the United States, it has also meant great insecurity, of an extent not seen since the Great Depression. And it is clear that we have not yet found fully adequate ways of responding to this, of recreating the elements of permanence needed to balance what seem to be increasing rates of technological and economic change. When people decry a “broken” political system, I think this is often what they really have in mind.

Finding a new balance between permanence and change is among the deepest political challenges of our age. Until we begin to achieve it, ambitious politicians will seek to ride the waves of discontent to power by appealing to the new lower class described by Murray and Putnam. Hard though it is to imagine, we may yet come to look back in wistful longing upon the campaign of Donald Trump.

Peter Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.


Works Cited

Ceaser, James W. Presidential Selection: Theory and Development. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Cohen, Roger. “Trump’s Weimar America.” The New York Times, December. 15, 2015. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/opinion/weimar-america.html, accessed 1/5/16).

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. New York: HarperOne, 1996.

Murray, Charles. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. New York: Crown Forum Books, 2012.

Putnam, Robert. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Walzer, Michael “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen.” In Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship. New York: Clarion Books, 1970.

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